Mekons The First Year Plan 

THE MEKONS: NEVER BEEN IN A RIOT (FAST PRODUCT 1978)

 

I have still to see Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post-Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream, which premiered recently at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and which explores and celebrates what might be called the late ’70s / early ’80s independent Scottish music scene with an emphasis on Edinburgh label Fast Product set up by Bob Last and Hilary Morrison – who both appear in the film.

Surprised that Fast should play such a prominent part in a full length documentary?

Well, Bill Drummond (in his book 45) praised Last as the definer of Post Punk, while in Simon Reynold’s Rip It Up and Start Again, Factory’s Tony Wilson maintained that, ‘The first really arty, clever label was Fast Product. A damn sight artier than us.’

Still not convinced?

Okay. In The 500 Greatest Singles since ‘Anarchy in the UK’, published in 2003, Gary Mulholland judged that Fast Product was ‘as important an indie label as Rough Trade, Postcard or Creation’ and Jon Savage wrote in the sleevenotes of his history of punk, England’s Dreaming: ‘You could point to the label as containing all the cutting edge elements that would become mainstream styles: New Pop, synth pop, rock funk.’

And if you still aren’t convinced, listen carefully to the lyrics of Hitsville UK on side 1 of The Clash triple album Sandinista, where Joe Strummer namechecks the leading indie labels of the day with Fast in there along with Small Wonder, Factory and Rough Trade.

 
And now a quick introduction to the debut release from one of the acts that helped make Fast so influential.

The University of Leeds Art Department in 1977 was an absolute hotbed of talent, if not in visual art, then certainly musically. First to emerge in that field was The Gang of Four, named after the politicians who ran China after Chairman Mao’s death in ’76, then The Mekons, named after the villainous arch nemesis of Dan Dare in a comic strip in The Eagle. Another act closely linked to these two followed in their leftwing and confrontational footsteps – Delta 5.

Art students, including Kevin Lycett, Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford formed The Mekons, with an idea far from the norm even in 1977 – not only did they believe that anybody could do it and reject the idea of stardom but, more radically, there was to be no set line-up and anyone who wanted to could get up onstage with them and join in. Instruments were also to be swapped around and it’s maybe not too surprising that Lester Bangs later declared that: ‘The Mekons are the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.’

One small but significant connection existed between Leeds and Edinburgh – the Callis family. Jo Callis (Luke Warm) of The Rezillos would occasionally send down cassette tapes of some very basic versions of new songs he’d written to his sister Jacqui, then studying art in Leeds.

Jacqui played some of these to her pals, who just happened to include The Mekons and Gang of Four (Jacqui herself would later join Delta 5 at one point). One of her brother’s songs doing the rounds that had a particular impact was a rough as a bear’s arse version of I Can’t Stand My Baby.

Hardly into their (non) career, The Mekons were invited to support
The Rezillos at the F-Club in Leeds, where they struck Bob Last – then also working as the Edinburgh band’s road manager – as being exactly the sort of edgy talent that he’d set up Fast to work with.

So he signed them that night.

Which did create one problem.

Originally The Mekons had been more interested in politics than music and they adhered to a punkier than thou manifesto that would ensure they would never sell out; most thought seeming to go into what they wouldn’t do – it was envisaged that they wouldn’t make records, wouldn’t be photographed and wouldn’t headline gigs.

Their comrades Gang of Four and others disagreed with their ideas, eventually persuading them that there was nothing wrong with putting their songs out on an interesting, intelligent independent label, which Fast undoubtedly would soon prove itself to be.

FAST 1 was a critique by The Mekons of White Riot, the first single by The Clash, and many initially misunderstood the track (including myself) taking it to be an expression of regret that unlike, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon (who’d both taken part in a troubled Notting Hill Carnival in ’76), The Mekons had never had the chance to hurl bricks at cop cars or loot supermarkets.

No, no, no, no. The Mekons were acknowledging the vulnerability of being in that kind of situation and not being able to handle it, of being scared rather than performing macho heroics.

Rough Trade, by then vital to independent labels through their distribution network, declined to stock FAST 1, claiming it was just too incompetent, although they later had a change of heart. See what you think, released early in 1978, this is The Mekons with Never Been in a Riot:

 
Tony Parsons reviewed the single for NME along with the second Fast release, All Time Low by Sheffield’s 2.3. That week he nominated three 45s as Singles of the Week and remarkably two of the three were the Fast releases.

Of the Mekons’ Never Been in a Riot, he observed: ‘125 incisive seconds of cacophonic commitment from the pyrotechnical radicals who make the Sex Pistols sound like Black Lace.’

*

And now for a Mekons single that I don’t think Tony Parsons or anyone else would ever describe as making the Sex Pistols sound like Black Lace.
Released in 1988 on the Sin Record Company this is the utterly superb Ghosts of American Astronauts:

 
The Mekons are on Facebook.

And finally a newish single from Port Sulphur on Creeping Bent, a band and a label that can both trace a number of connections to Fast Product and indeed to Big Gold Dream.

Had Neu! ever been commissioned by a particularly adventurous BBC producer to write a theme tune for a children’s TV show in 1974 it might just have sounded something like Fast Boys & Factory Girls:

 
Port Sulphur will be making their live performance radio debut on Thursday 20th August on Marc Riley’s excellent BBC 6Music show between 7-9 pm. For a measly pound you can buy Fast Boys & Factory Girls here.

If you want to visit the Creeping Bent site then here’s your link.

Advertisements